Solidarity forever part 9: War and repression

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Frank Little: anti-war stance

Part nine of our history of the Wobblies recounts how the First World War changed the terrain — and not for the better.

By 1914 there was a growing acknowledgement within the IWW that despite the huge part it had played in the class struggle, the union had not succeeded in becoming a mass revolutionary force. It had failed to sweep aside the conservative American Federation of Labour (AFL) and lead the American working class to socialism.

The victory in Lawrence in 1912 had seen the IWW recruit 14,000 new members in that town alone, but within a year membership in Lawrence had fallen to just 700. In 1914, after years of struggle, the IWW had only 11,000 paid-up members across the country and was being written off.

Bill Haywood was elected general secretary and launched organising drives in a number of industries, determined to establish and consolidate strong union organisation.

The IWW was successful in organising migratory agricultural workers, moving into iron and copper mining, lumber, construction and oil. As Ralph Chaplin put it, the IWW was taking control “on the job”. This was in the face of often fierce employer resistance, violent repression and AFL scabbing. So successful was the union that a growing number of state governors demanded that the federal government take action.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 provided the spectacle of socialist parties and trade unions rallying to their respective governments. The Russian Bolsheviks and a handful of others resisted the tide of jingoistic patriotism.

In the US there was massive opposition to becoming involved in the conflict. The Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, secured re-election as president in 1916 on the promise of keeping the country out of the war. Once elected, in the best traditions of bourgeois politics, he promptly took the US into the war.

Despite his ill-deserved reputation as a liberal, Wilson was determined to crush any and all domestic opposition to the war. Draconian laws criminalised dissent.

While the reformist Socialist Party took a strong anti-war stance, Haywood was opposed to the IWW getting involved in anti-war campaigning. He argued that the war provided ideal conditions for building the IWW and that they should focus on organising and not give the state an excuse for repression.

Other leading Wobblies disagreed, with Frank Little, a strong opponent of the war, arguing that repression was going to come anyway. Little was horrifically proved right when he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, his body hung from a bridge, by company gunmen in the copper town of Butte, Montana, in August 1917.

Meanwhile a number of states, starting with Idaho, passed anti-union laws effectively banning the IWW. The federal government finally took action on 5 September 1917 with coordinated raids on IWW offices in 33 cities. In Chicago alone the authorities seized five tons of “evidence”.

Instead of going underground, Haywood ordered those indicted to surrender and to fight the charges they faced in court. He actually seems to have believed that the Wobblies could successfully defend themselves. They had not campaigned against the war and the authorities would find no evidence that the union was being financed by the Germans.

But while there had been notable courtroom victories in the past, not least Haywood’s July 1907 defeat of an attempted judicial lynching in Idaho, the war had changed things.

The full weight of the federal government was thrown against the IWW at a time when the country was in the grip of a jingoistic hysteria. It did not matter that the union had not opposed the war because the government had decided to destroy it because of its militancy and radicalism. The IWW fell victim to a “red scare”.

At the end of the great Chicago trial that began in April 1918 and lasted four months, the IWW leadership was found guilty and sentenced to punitive jail terms. Haywood and 14 others got 20 years, 33 others got ten years, another 35 got five years and 12 got one year. And these sentences were to be served in the harshest conditions. So much for Woodrow Wilson’s liberalism!

There were other mass trials in Sacramento, Wichita and in Omaha, Nebraska. The Sacramento trial of 54 Wobblies saw the police harass the defence campaign. The secretary of the defence committee was arrested no less than 15 times.

When Theodora Pollok, a middle class sympathiser, attempted to arrange bail for some of the prisoners, she was arrested, the bail money was confiscated, and she was subjected to an internal examination normally reserved for prostitutes.

The Sacramento prisoners (five died in prison) all got from one to ten years in January 1919. Pollok got a $100 fine. Alongside this judicial repression, IWW members were subject to a nationwide campaign of violent intimidation ranging from beatings to lynching, all this during a war ostensibly fought “for democracy”.

The IWW was successfully beaten down, forced onto the defensive and into retreat. The repression continued into the post-war years.